One hundred years ago, in 1917, Europe was engulfed in the mass slaughter of its menfolk in the First World War. The US entered the war, and more than half a million casualties were sustained during the the British attack at Passchendaele, the war’s last large-scale offensive. Fighting extended across vast swathes of Europe, into the Middle East, and onto the oceans where Germany waged unrestricted submarine warfare against unarmed merchant vessels and even passenger liners.
Many painters were engaged as war artists, others served as soldiers, and some remained at home, in empty lands whose able-bodied males had all gone away, many never returning. In Russia, the Czar was toppled and the huge empire put into the turmoil of revolution.
An official war artist, CRW Nevinson’s Paths of Glory was exhibited with a quotation from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written In A Country Church-Yard (1750):
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nevinson leaves the viewer to construct their own narrative of the deaths of these two soldiers behind the Western Front, and to draw their own conclusions. Its frank depiction of two of the more than 5.5 million Allied (and 4.3 million Central Powers) dead was judged too much by the official censor. Nevinson therefore exhibited the painting with a brown paper strip across it, marked ‘censored’, for which he was reprimanded. As is so often the case, this ensured greater publicity.
In late 1917, the young British artist Paul Nash was commissioned as an official war artist, drawing in pen and ink for six weeks at Ypres that winter, before returning to England to develop his sketches into finished pieces.
The Cherry Orchard is a watercolour which Nash probably painted at that time, most likely back in England, whose original title is unknown. It shows a geometrically-rigorous orchard of cherry trees in the late winter, with a small clump of snowdrops in flower at the lower right corner. His model is thought to have been an orchard which had been owned by the Georgian poet, John Drinkwater. The trees and barbed wire fence are strongly reminiscent of the military defences used during the war.
Some of the great virtuoso artists of the late nineteenth century continued to paint their masterly works.
Joaquín Sorolla had just completed a commission for fourteen large murals for the Hispanic Society of America building in Manhattan. Entitled Vision of Spain, these depict the provinces of Spain, and all but one had been painted en plein air. After those, he painted this superb view of the Sierra Nevada in Granada in 1917, when his health was suffering from the frenetic pace of his work.
John Singer Sargent was at the height of his art, and was also commissioned as a war artist. His Muddy Alligators is one of his finest and most gestural watercolours, with loose marks that appear almost haphazard, but are the product of his thoroughly professional approach, each formed and placed with great care.
With the exception of Claude Monet, who painted on in his garden at Giverny, Impressionism was gone and done. Much of the post-Impressionist development was taking place under the bright sunlight and in front of the intense colours of the south of France, the Midi, in what became known as le grand atelier du Midi (the great workshop of the Midi).
Paul Signac had moved on from Divisionism to these wonderfully open sketches with their bright colours.
In Germany, Lovis Corinth had largely recovered from a life-threatening stroke, and moved on from crowded and vivacious narrative paintings to become more autobiographical again. The huge and stark figure of Cain heaping rocks onto the body of his brother Abel fits with Corinth’s growing horror and despair as the war’s remorseless slaughter continued.
Corinth’s Götz von Berlichingen shows the colourful historical character of Gottfried ‘Götz’ von Berlichingen (1480-1562), who had been an Imperial Knight and mercenary. After he lost his right arm in 1504, he had metal prosthetic hands made for him, which were capable of holding objects as fine as a quill. His swashbuckling autobiography was turned into a play by Goethe in 1773, and a notorious quotation from that led to his name becoming a euphemism for the phrase ‘he can lick my arse/ass’.
Maximilien Luce’s historical painting of The Execution of Varlin shows a grim episode from the Paris Commune of 1871. Eugène Varlin was a political activist who had started his career as a bookbinder, and become a socialist revolutionary and pioneer trade unionist. During the seige of Paris by the Prussians in 1870, he had distributed aid from his co-operative restaurant.
In March 1871, he took part in the storming of the Place Vendôme, following which he was elected to the Council of the Paris Commune. In ‘Bloody Week’ in May, he fought against government troops. When the Commune was suppressed and broken, he was captured, taken to Montmartre, tortured and blinded by a mob, and finally shot, as shown here.
Luce also painted scenes relating to the First World War away from the battlefields. In his La Gare de l’Est, a collection of wounded and battle-weary soldiers are shown at the entrance to this large Paris railway station.
The Gare de l’Est in Snow is even better-known, and a classic painting of falling snow in a large city.
For some, escape was the only choice. Albert Wenk visited Capri, then on his return to his Munich studio made this finished work, which inherits the looseness of the sketches on which it must have been based.
Georg Janny left on flights of the imagination such as The Dragon’s Cave (above) and cavorting faeries of Elfin Games (below).
Over in the United States, the great George Bellows travelled to the coast of California to paint working men engaged in manual labour in The Sand Cart.
The stifling effect of the war was strongest in Europe. In Canada, the dazzlingly brilliant but brief career of Tom Thomson was at its peak, prior to his death in the summer of 1917.
Over the winter, Thomson developed earlier plein air oil sketches into his famous large canvas of The West Wind. The sinuous branches of the pine curve over the background of the lake’s rough water and clouds. Although set in full daylight, the range of colours in the clouds is broad, and they contrast with the even, dark hills formed from dense vertical strokes of paint.
Snow in October is another well-known studio painting which Thomson made during that winter, with its fine geometric reticulations of frozen white canopies, and the subtle colour and patterns of its shadows.
The Rapids is one of Thomson’s finest oil sketches, a favourite of the artist AY Jackson. His rapids are formed from a range of different marks, reflecting not just his visual experience of them, but his knowledge of the water from his canoe.
After the Storm was probably the last of Thomson’s paintings, sketched very quickly as the scud clouds moved away and gusts of wind eased.
Further south, Charles Demuth was developing the style known as Precisionism, painting watercolours of acrobats and circus scenes such as The Circus.
In his Monument, Bermuda, Demuth for once laid bare the Cubist influence on Precisionism, and pointed at one of the directions in which painting was to travel later in the twentieth century, as it was recovering from the devastation of war.
If you’d like to look back at my snapshot of 1916, you’ll find it here.